Tuesday 30 November 2021

Omnium Gatherum - Origin (2021)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 5 Nov 2021
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I haven't listened to Omnium Gatherum in so long that I'm effectively coming to them fresh again and they surprised me here. This album kicks off with a piece of music that's slick, thoughtful and very patient. It's also, quite frankly, hard rock instead of the melodic death metal I expected and, sure, Emergence is only an intro but it feels like an intro to a very different album than what I expected. As the songs proper kick in, with agreeable melodeath crunch, they're also slick, thoughtful and very patient. There are a lot of keyboards in play and it feels like it's intended for an arena rather than a small club. They've clearly been listening to a lot of Dark Tranquillity.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing, just something I need to adjust to. There are a few heavier sections that feel more like traditional melodic death metal, even with a keyboard layer floating over the top, but the most obvious genre component is the vocal delivery of Jukka Pelkonen, and it almost feels out of place with its unashamedly harsh aspect. Which seems so weird to say! It's a melodic death metal album and it feels strange for the vocals to be harsh? I can safely say that I'd never expected to find myself writing that at Apocalypse Later!

Now, some songs play a lot more traditionally than others. While the first three kick off with their keyboards paramount, as if we're in Within Temptation territory, and the fourth starts quiet and slow with pensive guitar, Friction kicks off just like the melodic death metal you might expect. It's heavy and up tempo and, while it doesn't stay fast, it starts that way. Solemn may have another of those quiet and thoughtful intros, with a soaring but subdued guitar solo, but it kicks in hard too, with prominent drums and guitars that ramp up soon enough to match. Pelkonen feels right at home here.

But this isn't the norm. For the most part, this feels like the band have done an Opeth-esque shift from an extreme metal sound to a prog rock sound but they haven't let Pelkonen in on the secret yet. Even as Solemn builds into something even more dynamic than it began, it feels like there's a clean voice missing and, on many other songs, it feels like that missing clean voice ought to be the only voice. There is a clean backing vocal late on Solemn and notably in other songs like Paragon, but I'm thinking more of a co-lead. Should these be clean/harsh duets?

I should emphasise here that I don't mean to be negative about Pelkonen. His harsh vocal is warm but dark and he's able to get a lot of intonation and inflexion into his delivery. Solemn is easily my highlight here and that's in part because of him. And I should also emphasise here that I like this. If I've sounded negative above, it's because I'm struggling to come to terms with this approach to melodic death metal. I tend to love when bands mix genres in unusual ways and I dug the way that this album did that, from the opening intro, with its odd combination of crunch with tinkling piano or bluesy guitar. It just feels like the music has become bigger than the vocals allow it to be.

Reading up on the changes to the band over the years, I see that only guitarist Markus Vanhala is a constant since the band's beginning in 1996. It's telling that Aapo Koivisto has the next seniority, as he's been the keyboard player since 2005. Pelkonen joined a year later and has provided harsh vocals throughout, but he's spent the last decade in tandem with Joonas Koto's clean vocals and I see that Koto left last year, to be thus far unreplaced. I wonder if that was a good decision. Maybe I'd benefit from checking out their previous album, 2018's The Burning Cold, to see the other side of that change. For now, I like this but I can't lose the feeling that it's missing a key element.

Lynx - Watcher of Skies (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Nov 2021
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I don't usually do this but I've read a lot of reviews of this album by other people because I wanted to see what they thought of it. Some love it and many don't, for a variety of reasons. There's little guitar distortion to be found. There's too much cymbal bashing. Marvin Kiefer's vocals suck. Every time they get moving, they slow down again. These complaints make me wonder about the age of each of those reviewers, because I think they may be too young to see the album from a particular perspective.

No, these guitars aren't distorted, but that just makes it a hard rock album more it is a metal one and that's just classification. There's a lot of obvious NWOBHM influence here, but there's also a touch of American bombast in the vein of both Boston and Kiss. Arguably, Dark Shadows Rising is the only song here that really counts as metal, because it's far more urgent than anything else, a nod more to a band like Raven. I could see that being a single on Neat Records.

I didn't have a problem with Franz Fesel's use of cymbals or the way that the band mix up the pace of these songs. The production isn't anything to write home about, unless the goal was to sound as if this was recorded on equipment from 1981 during whatever scant studio time could be afforded by the band's parents and released on a British indie label that doesn't have a promotion budget. The only concern I can echo is Kiefer's vocals. I don't think they suck, but they are the weakest link in the chain for me. Again, they fit that NWOBHM mindset where half the band are still in school and they're just burning to get their music out anyway, with the expectation that they're going to be the next Def Leppard or Iron Maiden.

And, if this were 1981, there's no reason why they couldn't be. It often came down to perseverance and growth and the right cohesion within the band. Some got a self-released single out but faded away ito obscurity, even though they made outstanding music; some made it to the majors and are still world famous today. It wasn't all about quality. While Lynx don't feel like a Diamond Head, I'd throw out an Elixir comparison, a band who got good product out but failed to achieve the success they deserved.

But this is 2021, forty years on, and that means that this is mostly going to play to nostalgia, even though Lynx are a new band with new music. I remember so many albums like this in the eighties, where the best quality shone through mediocre production, and really came out on stage. I'd love to see Lynx live, even though they're from Germany and I'm six thousand miles away, so it isn't too likely. For now, I'm enjoying their album a lot, even though there's really nothing new here at all.

Like the recent Wolfmother album, every song here sounds as if I've heard it before. Unlike that album, however, I can't tell you where, because this isn't plaguarism, it's a distilling of a couple of decades of music into a new form, not entirely unlike what someone like Greta van Fleet does. The only song that actually feels specifically familiar is Beyond the Infinite and I can't place the reason why.

The most obvious influence is early Iron Maiden. Kiefer's vocals are a lot more like Paul Di'Anno's than Bruce Dickinson's. The bass intros on songs like Savage Mountain are right out of the Steve Harris playlist. What's more, the band often gallop along in that Maiden vein. None of these are Maiden songs repackaged, but that early Maiden vibe is unmistakable. I have to say that, while I still adore their first two albums, they wouldn't have been able to progress to Powerslave without a change of vocalist and I can see a direct comparison there to Lynx. It wouldn't hurt for Keifer to hand over the mike to a Bruce Dickinson equivalent and concentrate on his excellent guitarwork.

And all that means that I'm going to buck the trend of the reviews I've read. I can't give this 10/10 because it has problems, not that I give anything 10/10 because I feel that sort of classic has to hold up over multiple years and a couple of weeks since release can't justify that. But I can't slam it either. I just plain enjoyed this, on a first listen and on a fifth listen. It's a fun album that took me back almost forty years and that means something to me. Not every musical change in those four decades has been a good one and I had a blast with this musical throwback.

It's vibrant and it feels like the band really mean it, as if this music is the most important thing in the world to them and they're aching to succeed. I don't hear that much nowadays, even from the youngest bands. I dug the sheer energy here and I hope to hear a lot more of it. As Tommy Vance used to say after announcing the results of the Rock War on The Friday Rock Show: "Don't quit!"

Monday 29 November 2021

Tom Morello - The Atlas Underground Fire (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 15 Oct 2021
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No, you're not stuck in a time loop. The Atlas Underground was Tom Morello's debut solo album,a collaborative effort in 2018 that featured him grooving with an array of diverse guests. The Atlas Underground Fire is a thematic sequel that does much the same thing but with this new array of diverse guests names that I have to assume have a higher profile given that 've actually heard of some of them. There's Bruce Springsteen for a start, lending his voice alongside Eddie Vedder's to a cover of Highway to Hell. Yes, that one. My first discovery here is that Morello toured with the E Street Band.

It's not a bad cover but it's an unnecessary one and hardly the highlight of the album. What I was surprised to find is that my favourite songs here were far from what Morello is known for, though his patented liquid guitar does make a few notable appearances. He provides a searing solo on my pick for the standout, which is Driving to Texas, featuring Phantogram, a New York dream pop duo whom I'd not previously heard of. Between the multi-instrumental talents of Josh Carter and the soothing and seductive voice of Sarah Barthel, this reminded me of the fascinating Dark Night of the Soul album by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse.

I liked Naraka wth Mike Posner too, which starts out as soft vocal electronic pop but brings edges into play, slow ones but dark and ominous ones. It's an interesting choice, because Morello surely can't be on more than about half the track and he doesn't do much at all until late on. I'd be more likely to listen to Damian Marley than Mike Posner, but both their songs work here. Marley is on a louder and more abrasive number called The Achilles List which, like much of this album plays with distortion and electronica, but with that recognisable voice revelling in it.

Beyond the fact that, like most collaborative albums, this is a mixed bag with some songs shining far brighter than others, my biggest problem with it is that it's very deliberately overproduced. I like a lot of the grooves and vibes here, but there's so much post-production decoration that only served to distract me from them. It's there from the outset on a brief opener, Harlem Hellfighter, that's a sort of electronic rock mashup, pitting cutesy agaisnt distorted, but it's omnipresent here with every song maxing out the spectrum at some point and deliberate glitches everywhere. My least favourite song, Charmed I'm Sure, doesn't do anything else.

And what that means is that, even more than the recent Santana collaborative album, Blessings and Miracles, that danced its way through a whole slew of genres, this is recommended more for the adventurous listener and most likely one who's coming to it from the pop side rather than the alternative rock side. Let's Get the Party Started is a lively and up tempo song featuring Bring Me the Horizon that's edgy in a sort of trendy rock rap way with catchy emo lyrics. It's rock music for pop fans. The closer, On the Shore of Eternity is an instrumental guitar workout but one's that's laid over techno beats that are likely to put off traditional rock fans.

And that's both a good thing and a bad one. I love hearing styles that I've never heard before and I'm thankful for this introducing me to Phantogram, but I do wonder how Tom Morello's core fans will receive this. The only song with a Rage Against the Machine vibe is Hold the Line, featuring a relatively new indie singer and rapper called grandson. The liquid guitar that many know Morello for because of songs like Audioslave's Like a Stone is here on a few songs, like The War Inside and On the Shore of Eternity, but it's hardly a focus for the album.

So hey, it depends what you're looking for. This is imaginative and mostly quality stuff but it may not be remotely the music you think you're getting into. This is an electronica album more than it is a guitar one and it's a pop album more than it is a rock one. That a lot of it is good stuff may not make any difference to whether you'll like it or not.

Jugulator - Under the Verdict (2021)

Country: Algeria
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Nov 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Every time I get a chance to review something from Africa, I leap at the opportunity and I couldn't be happier that this underrepresented continent in the world of rock and metal often provides us with quality music. I just wish there was more of it! But hey, here's Jugulator from Algeria, formed in 2014 out of the cold ashes of an earlier band called Curse of Pharaoh. They play a technical form of thrash metal that's very much in the west coast American style with some British influences in there too, I think. I'm not discerning any particular local flavour.

The main man seems to be Ramzy Abbas, who founded the band and provides both lead vocals and lead guitar. His vocals are decent, if nothing special, but his guitarwork is excellent and I dug this a lot from an instrumental standpoint. Backing him up on rhythm guitar is Abdelwahab Merzouk, who goes by Death Corpse, even though I couldn't detect any black metal influence here—this is a pure thrash album—and the pair constantly weave riffs out of nothing like there's a neverending supply of them in Algiers. They just keep on coming and they never let us down.

This is perhaps more evident the longer the songs get and these do tend to stretch: they start out around the five minute mark with Strangers Conflict and Who Will Save Us; leap into Civil War, an epic which nudges past nine; and then settle into a comfortable six to seven minute length for the remainder of the album. That epic may or may not be the best song here, but it surely must be the crowning achievement of the incessant riff machine angle of Jugulator. It's the gift that keeps on giving on that front, with every riff giving way to another and another until we're lost in the song and still thoroughly engaged when it wraps nine minutes in.

I like this album. It's not a bludgeoning assault the way that a lot of modern thrash can be when it really benefits from 21st century production technology. It's more thoughtful thrash, a sedate but powerful album that takes its time and lets these songs breathe. This is the element that reminds me of second wave British thrash bands like Hydra Vein and Metal Messiah, who were never quite prog thrash but did come close to it with their intricacy.

There's a lot of midpace stuff on offer but it feels deliberate and worthy, delivering what the song needs whatever its pace. So often nowadays, extended midpace sections suggest that a band can't keep up any more and need a bit of a break. I never felt that here, as Jugulator feel always ready to speed up again. Crysis is a solid example of this. It's midpace for most of the song, but intricate and clever with it, and there's one point where it ramps up majestically for a sprint. Blood on the Red Flag does that the other way round, spending most of its time up tempo and slowing down as needed, and it's even better still.

I could have done with a few more hooks to make it all a little more memorable, but this is a peach of a technical thrash album, one for the guitarists to be absorbed by. Ramzy Abbas's guitarwork is the highlight, ably assisted by Merzouk and a capable rhythm section. Abderezzak Yahimi's drums are impeccable and the well mixed bass of Nour El Islem Aidi, who goes by Black Bear, gets plenty of notable moments too. This is a second album for Jugulator, after 2019's Ad Exitium, and I'm now eager for a third. This is very close to an 8/10 for me. I want to see if the next one will be.

Friday 26 November 2021

Pissing Razors - Eulogy Death March (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Groove Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Oct 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've been in love with the name of this band ever since I first heard it back in the nineties. Sure, it actually refers to a dose of the clap, but it's a perfect encapsulation of attitude in only two words and nobody can claim to be surprised if they see it on a poster, wander into a gig knowing nothing else and hear this music erupting out of the speakers.

I'm not as much a fan of their style of groove metal, but they do it well and they seem happy (if it can ever be appropriate to use that word in conjunction with this band) to be back. While this is a seventh studio album for them, it's also their first in no fewer than eighteen years. They split up in 2004, a year after their previous album, Evolution, and stayed away for a decade. They've been back since 2014 but this is the first full length product since, after a pair of 2019 singles, Crushing Grip and Left for Dead, both of which can be found on this almost hour-long return.

I didn't really hear the groove in groove metal until Chemical Burn, three songs in, which finds a neat vibe. The first two, and much of the album, are pure attitude, spat out by an angry band in a barrage of staccato riffs that highlight how tight they are. The long pauses between riffs in Unsee are a recipe for disaster if a cover band attempts them without being as tight as these guys are. I prefer the opener, In Spite of My Scars, which seems even angrier than the other songs here, but I have to call out Result of Virtue as the epitome of this approach.

It really builds its sound on an incessant and monotonous beat, using not just actual beats on the drums of Eddy Garcia but overt chords on Geo Gomez's bass and Mat Lynch's guitar too. It's a loud and brash and in your face approach, a promise of violence built on that bass-heavy post-Reign in Blood Slayer sound that Pantera made such a career out of. It's an acquired taste and I have to say that it's one taste that I never acquired. My favourites here aren't the pure Pissing Razors songs, so Result of Virtue is a way down my list, but I'd bet it's a favourite for the die hards, if not the top of their lists, the best thing here for them.

I got into this early with In Spite of My Scars, the opener, because it's so uncompromising right out of the gate and because it unexpectedly finds some middle eastern melodies as it develops. That's surprising and I like surprises like that. I really like the title track, which is a bit more adventurous musically, with lo-fi tribal drumming and backing vocals that quickly remind of Sepultura. It simply gathers up power and barrels along effortlessly during the late guitar solo, Joe Rodriguez's voice lending it even more of a Suicidal Tendencies feel.

And I got that a lot here, especially after the title track. Left for Dead and Pulverized both carry a Suicidal Tendencies vibe, mixing the raw speed and energy of their earlier material with a groove from later on. Rodriguez has a voice that sits in between clean and harsh, as raw attitude as these rhythmic staccato riffs, and raw in feel too. He uses a raspy shout, so it's harsh, but the rasp often dissolves into the music behind him, so often feels cleaner than it is.

The other influence here may manifest itself a little obviously, through a cover. The way that the band barrels along like some unstoppable force just looking for an immovable object to challenge it is most apparent in Wasting Away, which is a Nailbomb cover. They do this really well and this is a constant approach through the second half of the album, especially on Crushing Grip, which has a glorious start, with the drums trying something different and the bass right in the focus. But it manifests itself most clearly on the cover, so clearly they borrowed it.

It's fair to say that I liked the second half more than the first. It's faster, though the Slayer riffs do give way to DOA style slower parts. It's punkier. It's sassier. And, even when it's borrowing famous riffs from things like Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song for Nothing to Say, it's a lot more varied than the first half with its purer and more limited rhythmic guitars. In spite of a few highlights, I'd have gone with a 6/10 on the basis of the first half, but I have to increase that because of the second. It has to be at least a 7/10 and, if this sort of groove metal is your thing, maybe further. Welcome back, folks!

Plaindrifter - Echo Therapy (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Oct 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Every time I listen through this album—and I've done that rather a lot while nursing a sick ferret—I'm surprised all over again when the vocals show up. This feels like the sort of psychedelic rock album that's entirely instrumental, the musicians—and I'm not surprised there are only three of them—losing themselves in the sonic journeys. I imagined them live on stage with eyes closed as they improvise a new destination and craft the way there by manipulating the air. It seems odd to me that one of them found enough presence in the now to open his eyes and actually step up to a microphone.

But there are vocals on M.N.S.N., which opens up the album. They don't show up until halfway and they're quickly gone again until late on, but they're there. They're there early on New World too, for a brief moment, and halfway through Proto Surfer Boy, and so on, but I'm surprised every time one of these pieces of music finds voice. I think it's because I'm not thinking of them as vocals, in a sense of a means to bring me words and meaning that I should pay attention to. I'm treating this voice as if it was another instrument, even though it it's an entirely clean and even soft voice and it takes its time. I'm thinking of it as a guitar or a keyboard, a new layer to the music, emphasising a mood or a soundscape.

And I like that music. This is rock rather than metal, but it isn't afraid to get heavy in the old ways, without having to downtune too far and add crunch. It's also surprisingly easy to listen to, not that stoner rock is a challenge but because this is smooth stuff. I don't have to join their journey under my own steam; I can just lie back on the raft that is Plaindrifter as it, well, drifts on down a cosmic river to reach whatever weird and wonderful place it has in mind for us. It's effortless, especially a song called Proto Surfer Boy, with its almost organic intro. Maybe this song is a fantastic voyage instead of a cosmic trip, aiming inwards rather than outwards.

If Proto Surfer Boy is my favourite track here, I think my least favourite is Prisma, a twelve minute epic that may well work for some people, because it's easy to get lost in it, but doesn't for me. I'm finding that it's the one that vanishes into the background for me and lets me drift away from the album. It's not a bad song; it's just one that needs a bit more focus. Of course, I'm listening to it in my office, which is not the optimal environment for an album like this. I should be in bed with the lights out, listening on headphones at three in the morning. My counter to that is that my office is no problem for the other four tracks here.

Certainly, Digital Dreamcatcher, somewhat appropriately given its title, pulls me right back in. It surely has more ambition than anything else on offer here, which I appreciate, finding a prog vibe during the second half, with a guitar/drum conversation that's groovy and fascinating. It certainly has the most overt vocals of any song on the album—whichever of the three band members sings does so as a lead voice on this one rather than a supporting one. And that must make it my second favourite here, a great way to wrap up the album, underlining that Plaindrifter know exactly what they're doing in this genre but are willing to mix it up at points. It's a perfect way to make me wait for a second album.

Thursday 25 November 2021

Ghost Cries - Purgatorium (2021)

Country: Japan
Style: Symphonic Black/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Nov 2021
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

The Japanese are known for taking things to extremes; whatever it is that you do, there's likely to be someone in Japan doing it more. The latest example of this for me are Ghost Cries from Tokyo, who tend to be listed as symphonic black/death metal and fairly so but, if you're imagining it right now, it's that squared. The best word I can conjure up is "frantic" as this often feels like shred, but with shredding being done on every instrument at once. I haven't felt this overwhelmed since the latest Fleshgod Apocalypse album.

But it works. I listened to Sin of Justice, the opening onslaught, four times, then watched the official video, before continuing onto the rest of the album, just to figure out what they're doing. It's deceptively calm and symphonic a little way into the song, but keyboard runs and drum fills appropriately hint that it's not going to stay that way for a long and, sure enough, the initial vocals signal "go!" in no uncertain terms. No, I don't mean the number five in Japanese, I mean "unleash the kraken!" It's a good thing that this band is so tight, because this could go horribly wrong in so many ways if the musicians weren't up to the challenge. And that's what this song is: a challenge that they meet.

I tried to follow individual instruments in some of those repeat listens, but I kept failing. If I tried to follow the drums, which are so emphatic that it feels as if there are at least two drummers, I'd succeed for a while but suddenly I'd realise that I'd switched my focus to the keyboards without my active brain noticing the change. The two guitars feel like four and the vocals show up in multiple styles, depending on what the song needs. They're clean for two and a half minutes, then there's a harsh verse ending with a gorgeous and well-timed scream that's all the more impactful for not being acknowledged. Rinse and repeat but with a narrative section midway for good measure.

It's amazing to me how the band got all this into one song that's only a breath over seven minutes long. And there are seven more to come. Frankly, just listen to that one. If it's not your thing, then nothing else here is going to remotely convince you, but if it is your thing, then you've bought this already on the basis of that one song along and my job of providing discovery is done and I'm able to shut up now and be done.

Frankly, there isn't much more to say. Ghost Cries describe their sound as "dramatic death metal", focusing on the vocals, the extreme blastbeats and the symphonic atmosphere. I could add that it all serves the purpose of texture. The clean and harsh vocals don't duet or contrast; they're there to meet whatever textural need the song has at any particular point of time. I'd suggest that this holds true for every other element, including the blastbeats and symphonic keyboard overlays, to the degree of the gothic piano that shows up here and there and occasional effects like dripping water that bookend Demigoddess. Everything's there for texture.

And what that means is that nobody's going to pick a favourite song here on the basis of riffs and hooks and melodies. It's all going to come down to the textures that speak to you. For me, it's Sin of Justice and Demigoddess, with the closer, Phantom of the Kingdom, not far behind. You might pick completely different songs and that's fine. We're all different and we like different textures. But, if you like dense, gothic, dramatic music where six people seem to be playing lead at once, I'd suggest that you're going to find your texture here.

There Was a Yeti - Gravitational Waves (2021)

Country: Canada
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 19 Nov 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | YouTube

I can't find much online about There Was a Yeti, but I'd certainly like to know more. The band may not even be a band, just one guy from Alberta, Canada; the location is a given, but that's about it. The only other absolute is that this is instrumental music. I'd call most of it post-rock, because it's aiming at creating soundscapes with what appears to be traditional rock instrumentation: guitar, bass and drums, though I'm pretty sure there are keyboards here too, even if they're not obvious all the time. Occasionally, it ventures into post-metal too, but that's far from consistent across an array of nine tracks that amount to a generous seventy minutes of music.

On the opener, Massif, that's done by heavying up the piece considerably, literally moving from its initial post-rock approach into a post-metal one. Sometimes, though, such as on the title track, it's a texture. This one's a post-rock song, but the post-metal crunch is added somewhat for effect into the background, as if whoever's playing the heavy stuff is in the next studio over with all the doors left open so that the sound clearly bleeds through. I like the contrast, with a softer echoey guitar noodling away as our foreground and the slightly subdued crunch behind it. I'm not convinced that I like it more than the softer songs on their own though.

Gravitational Waves is a long piece, exceeding ten minutes, but it still fades out if it still had more to tell if only there wasn't a time limit pressing. There's some intricate drumming right at the end of the song that particularly caught my attention and I wanted a lot more of that, but I wanted in vain. I should add that this isn't the only piece in double digits, Leviathan an epic closer indeed at fourteen minutes. The shortest piece here is Simulation, at four and a half, but it feels more like a calm interlude before things liven up considerably on Caligula's Favourite Pastime.

This is one of the heaviest songs on the album and it features a lot of intricate changes, so it could be categorised as instrumental progressive metal as much as post-metal. Boundaries do blur, but this one crosses it pretty emphatically. And that just makes me wonder who's actually playing the instruments because they deserve praise. Sure, the guitar is always at the forefront of everything that There Was a Yeti does, but there are some great moments not on the guitar, like the drums late in Gravitational Waves or the keyboard bookends to Simulation.

Talking of Simulation, it may be the shortest track here but it's easily my favourite. That keyboard intro is neat but, when the guitar takes over, it does so with the west African highlife tone that's a constant source of happiness to me. It's impossible for anybody's spirits not to be bucked up when listening to highlife and that works just as here too. This one's a jazzy piece as well, especially as it gets going, so it keeps us on the hop even as it's cheering us up.

And, even though I have a metal heart, I much prefer the softer pieces here mixing highlife guitar improvisations with jazzy beats. They're not particularly challenging, but Simulation and Renjo La and The Lion's Daughter are delightful. Sure, Renjo La does build for a while in its second half with power chords and drum fills, but it still does what it did, merely with an added layer of emphasis. I don't dislike the heavier pieces, but they don't feel anywhere near as free or natural. After only a single time through the album, I noticed that I was thinking about skipping forward through most of the heavier songs to get to the more introspective pieces. That's telling.

And so I think this is a 6/10. I enjoyed it and the talent on display by whoever's in this band is clear, but I can't past the feeling that I should have enjoyed some of it more than I did.

Wednesday 24 November 2021

The Darkness - Motorheart (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Nov 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's hard to imagine anyone not liking the Darkness because they're so infectious. They don't have a single sound, unless we can simply label them lively or energetic, so they're not pigeonholeable. And, even if that isn't a real word, it seems like one that they might use themselves, given a sense of humour that pervades everything they do. Most bands wouldn't be able to get away with a song like Welcome tae Glasgae at the beginning of the album, especially when not a single member is actually from Glasgow. I'm not sure the Darkness do either, but they come closer than they ought to.

It's a wacky song, with an overdone opening built out of bagpipes, martial drums and even wilder falsetto vocals from Justin Hawkins than usual. It settles down a little and rocks, but I can't say it's particularly coherent. Then again, I've been to Glasgow. It's a vibrant city but, yeah, I can't really say it's particularly coherent either. My biggest problem is with the lyrics, because they state "the women are gorgeous and the food is OK." I'm not going to diss on any Scottish lassie, but I have an abiding craving for the African restaurant down the stairs next to my hotel when I was there last. They're a heck of a lot better than merely OK! I hope it survived COVID.

From that opening, the band settle down a little. I emphasise a little because they veer around an array of genres while never losing their rock base. It's Love, Jim's verses seem like Britpop rocked up a few levels. There's AC/DC all over the place, most clearly on The Power and the Glory of Love, and there's Queen everywhere too, especially on Sticky Situations. Eastbound dabbles in country rock, even with prominent plugs for what I assume are favourite British pubs for the band. And it's happy to wrap up in new wave and post-punk on Speed of the Nite Time, which reminds of nobody if not Gary Numan.

That's not to forget the glam rock that underpins most of this. The band obviously grew up with a good stack of Slade records and they played them a lot. There's a nod to Rick Springfield's Jessie's Girl on Jussy's Girl, just with the Darkness's pixie-like humour: "And if you don't wanna be Jussy's girl, have you got a friend who looks just like you but maybe isn't as fussy and wants to be with Jussy?" Talking of humour, the title track isn't light years away from Tim Minchin's Inflatable You except in how much it rocks. It covers much the same ground lyrically: "I never had much luck with women so I bought myself a droid."

With such variety on offer, different song leap out for special attention on each listen through. It really is the sort of album that changes in your mind, depending on your mood at the time, which I remember well from Queen, for whom drummer Rufus Tiger Taylor still plays when needed in the place on the stage that his dad made famous. Talking of Queen, Sticky Situations keeps growing on me, and I can't resist Nobody Can See Me Cry when it simply barrels along in between verses.

However, my favourite song is consistently the title track, which was released as the album's first single in August. It has a particularly killer opening, starting out simply, adding an ethnic flavour as it builds, before getting jagged and experimental for a moment and finally sliding effortlessly into its groove. I often sat back in my chair thinking about how tight this band are, but that went double for the title track. No wonder the Darkness are so well regarded on stage.

The downsides for me are that it can be awkward to appreciate just how damn good this band are when they're messing around on their sillier songs and that Justin Hawkins's falsetto can seem a little overused. But hey, this is what the Darkness do and they've carved a considerably niche out of the rock 'n' roll genre for themselves. That's impressive all on its own but that they're still fun makes it all the better.

Waqas Ahmed - A Perpetual Winter (2021)

Country: Romania
Style: Shred/Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Nov 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I reviewed Waqas Ahmed's debut album, Doomsday Astronaut, last year and he kindly sent me his new EP for review with its release date that's exactly one year after its predecessor. As you might imagine, the negative side is that it's short, its six tracks amounting to only seventeen minutes of time; three of them are very brief indeed, interludes reaching a minute or so each. We could well see them each as an intro to the more substantial song that follows it, which interpretation might call this a three track 12" single. The positive side is that it does everything we might expect from Ahmed, but in a more varied mix, so it's a good step forward.

Oddly, for a guitar shredder, the first of those tracks, Warrior in Time, is entirely electronic, but I should note that Ahmed plays almost everything here, not just the guitar: he's responsible for all the guitars, bass and drums and some of the keyboards, with only Sarmad Ghafoor helping out on the latter. I like how balanced this all is, because Ahmed is not a guitarist who can do other things, he's a true multi-instrumentalist, and he gives each of those instruments all his attention as if he hasn't ever seen anything else.

Really, Warrior in Time is a pleasant and peaceful intro to serve as a contrast to Demon Slayer, the track proper that follows it, because that gets right down to business with shredding straight out of the gate. I couldn't help but wonder exactly how quickly this one matches the note count of the opener and it has to be in mere seconds. It's a blitzkrieg of a song, a solid Guitar Hero challenge, but it's enjoyable to simply listen to with some slower sections, electronic parts in the background for flavour and a very liquid guitar tone that varies depending on where the song has got to. It's a portfolio piece, sure, but it's a fun journey for us too.

No Laughing Matter is the next song proper, after a brief interlude called The Hunt. This one adds some different elements to Ahmed's shredding, opening with a doomy riff that's soon echoed by that liquid guitar, as if angels are harmonising with demons. It certainly feels diabolical at points but it also gets bluesy for a while which makes us think that Ahmed has wandered on down to the crossroads, not to sell his soul but to challenge the devil for a guitar made of gold. The only thing that makes this feel any different is that the core theme that Ahmed returns to throughout is an infuriatingly catchy one, to the point that it could be a TV theme tune.

The final track is the title track, following a piano interlude with orchestration called Aftermath, and, to my mind, A Perpetual Winter is the best of the bunch. It starts heavy but gets soulful, with some delightful slower sections that are exactly what I was looking for more of in my prior review. I like Ahmed as a shredder; Demon Slayer is a lot of fun. But I like him more when he's playing like this, soaring above both strings and crunch. I also like the extra ethnic flavour, even it's restricted to hand drums early on, and the way he plays with modern dissonant chords later in the piece.

So, this is good stuff. I liked Ahmed's debut album but I like this more. The only thing I don't like is that it's so short, but hey, I'll take what I can get. What this really boils down to is a three track EP or single with intros to each that sound great but are quickly forgotten in the grand scheme of the release. Now I'm looking forward to his second album all the more. Thanks, Waqas!

Tuesday 23 November 2021

Wolfmother - Rock Out (2021)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 4/10
Release Date: 12 Nov 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Tumblr | Wikipedia | YouTube

I had a blast with Wolfmother's prior album, Rock 'n' Roll Baby, released right at the end of 2019, even though it was so short that I struggled to call it a full album; a mini-album maybe. This shock release, dropped on the streaming services without any notice, isn't much longer, only squeaking past a half hour by a nose, but it's fundamentally disappointing. It's enjoyable enough to listen to, with all the component parts you might expect from a Wolfmother album but, even on a first time through, it feels off and, rather like the Star Wars movie The Force Awakens, which was enjoyable to watch, it continues to get worse the more we think about it.

Part of that is the production, because this feels more like an unpolished demo recorded on cheap equipment than it does a proper studio release. Now, it was recorded during COVID and the lo-fi aspect is surely deliberate, but it's offputting to me, especially with regards to the vocals, which I could believe were recorded on a broken mike. Part of it is that Wolfmother songs continue to get shorter; half of the ten on offer here fail to reach three minutes and one doesn't even last to two. Like Rock 'n' Roll Baby, the album's over before it's really begun.

And a large part of it is that the whole thing just feels derivative, as if Wolfmother have done this before or that other people did and really didn't care too much. The most overt lack of originality comes on Upload, which I could swear blind is a studio demo of Kiss in 1978 covering the new single by Foreigner called Hot Blooded just because they could, with absolutely no intention of releasing it to the public. It has to be on some collector's edition box set of outtakes somewhere. But all the songs here feel derivative.

Fellin Love (whatever that means) feels like Wolfmother's own Woman, but with a thinner sound than I'm getting listening to that right now on YouTube. Rock Out is back to seventies Kiss again, as are so many of these songs. Humble is almost an Ozzy Osbourne solo song but with guitars edited out and the bass pumped up to a blur in some vain attempt to counter that. Metal & Fire feels like a Joan Jett riff, as do so many others, especially the closer, Walking.

The worst songs wait for the second half. Metal & Fire is so derivative it sounds like every eighties band all at once, but with thinner production than they had back then and with the cheese amped up for no good reason. This one's almost a parody. That it's catchy doesn't help its case. The vocals on Ego are cheap and conversational and that just doesn't work over a fluid guitar that I'm sure I heard on a song on Motörhead's Another Perfect Day album. It's good guitar. It's awful vocals. The result is embarrassing. "Who am I?" is the final line and I wondered that too.

I know some people didn't like Rock 'n' Roll Baby but it did the job for me. It was catchy stuff that felt like Andrew Stockdale cared. Sure, it's ridiculously short but it worked. This one doesn't and I can't imagine fans being too happy with him after this. Maybe dropping it without any fanfare at all was the best approach. It's the easiest way that fans are going to ignore it or treat it more like a bonus than a real album. It wouldn't surprised me if it got yanked back off streaming again and its existence denied.

I try not to post bad reviews, but I like Wolfmother and Rock 'n' Roll Baby made it onto my highly recommended list for 2019. Maybe this will serve as a warning to fans not to bother with it. I'm in public service mode. Unlike that one, this is not highly recommended and it's not recommended in any fashion. Steer clear.

Æxylium - The Fifth Season (2021)

Country: Italy
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Oct 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Æxylium are a folk metal band from Varese in the very north of Italy, right on the Swiss border, so I was eager to see what local instrumentation they'd bring to bear. Mostly it's flutes and violins, a mandolin often joining them and some bouzouki too. However, their sound is certainly not sourced only from Italy, because there's a lot from much further north, as this often moves away from the pastoral mindset to sea shanties and Viking metal.

It starts out heavy, with The Bridge, which layers folk instrumentation over melodic death metal. There are sections for the flute to shine and the violins and the bass, but it's mostly a heavy song with the harsh male voice of Steven Merani leading the way. He sounds good, raspy but accessible and intelligible. And I should point out before moving onto Mountains that he's the band's singer, because it suddenly seems like he isn't just one song later.

That's because there's a guest vocal on Mountains from Arianna Bellinaso, a clean soprano, who's so well woven into this song that it's very easy to think of her voice as the lead and Merani's as an agreeable texture behind her that steps up to duet with her at points. I don't know who Bellinaso sings for regularly and I have a feeling that she doesn't, because she may only sing metal on the side of classical performances, but Æxylium ought to sign her up permanently because she's just perfect here.

Mountains may be my favourite song, though there's so much variety on offer that it's difficult to compare some of these songs with others. It begins with solo piano then heavies up, though it's a flute that takes the lead. The melodies are excellent and it's this one that stayed in my head over a couple of days. It's just as obviously a metal song as The Bridge but it feels like it's folk metal at its core rather than melodeath. Immortal Blood does much of the same but without Bellinaso and it works well, if not quite as well because of her absence.

And then we start to move around the genre. Battle of Tettenhall begins with sounds of warfare and turns up the choral aspent. There's a male guest here, Samuele Faulisi of the Italian epic folk metal band Atlas Pain, who sings clean; I believe he returns for Vinland and Spirit of the North as well. Skål is a sea shanty in the Alestorm style but folkier and less crunchy. Yggdrasil is very Norse and very emphatic. There's nothing small about it and it's happy about that. Vinland sounds like it ought to be Norse too and it is, with the most obvious call to dance yet. It's a wild and lively one, with accordion and mandolin at the fore.

Even while they shift around the genre, they do a surprisingly good job of defining the core sound of the band, which I'm thinking of as being built around those flutes and violins. Once we get past The Bridge, they're the focal point even above the guitars and harsh vocals. In fact, each half ends with an instrumental piece of folk music, where those other elements notably take a break and it falls to the flutes and violins, with some drums, to really strut their stuff. Am Damhsa Mór could be called an interlude and On the Cliff's Edge a postlude, but they're substantial pieces, not much shy of three minutes each. They're really the bedrock of what Æxylium do, merely without guitars and power and vocals layered over the top.

I think it's Mountains for me over everything else here, with its fantastic female soprano that I'm hoping to hear more of. There are eight musicians in this band; what's one more? I like Yggdrasil a lot too, as the biggest and heaviest song but with its delicacies too, and Vinland following it. And I love those instrumental pieces and could happily listen to an album comprised only of them. Given that I've just highlighted five very different pieces of music, I guess I've underlined how much this album does.

It's only the band's second release, after 2018's Tales from This Land, and, as those titles suggest, they've sung in English throughout. I do wonder what they'd sound like with vocals in Italian, but I wonder more what a full album would sound like with Arianna Bellinaso fully incorporated into its sound. I think that's what I want for Christmas.

Monday 22 November 2021

Whitechapel - Kin (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Deathcore
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Oct 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I like my deathcore the way I like my death metal, namely varied and with plenty of contrasts. This eighth studio album from Knoxville's Whitechapel is full of contrasts, songs shifting from calming and thoughtful to brutally bludgeoning and usually on a dime. I haven't heard much Whitechapel, but this is consistently solid enough to make me pay a lot more attention.

The most effective contrast is the pairing of Without You, a peaceful minute long interlude late in the album, with Without Us, a song that kicks off so angrily that I almost ducked. The latter moves through calm, bittersweet sections, to more bludgeoning. If it's the story of a relationship, as it certainly seems to be, it's emphatically a turbulent one, as both the lyrics—"This isn't home, it's Hell with a lovely face"—and the contrast in musical style underline.

And much of the album does this, to varying degrees. The lyrics make for depressing reading, emo angst but with a voice of experience. Anticure explains that "This house is poisoned beyond repair and the souls of our past life are trapped on the inside." The Ones Who Made Us, a telling title if I ever saw one, suggests "Deep inside, you know that this is not what we were fighting for." History is Silent adds "It's not okay to have a knife in your chest and still be able to breathe." If that isn't a suicidal song—the repeated refrain of "Put me in my grave" suggesting that it is—then we cannot mistake To the Wolves for anything else: "So long, throw me to the wolves," it pleads. "I'm a lost cause drowning in the weight I pull."

Yet the music offers hope. From the opening of I Will Find You, there are uplifting quieter sections and the heavier ones don't always emulate the depression. Sometimes they just highlight vitality and vibrancy. The lyrics suggest that the narrator has had enough of everything and just wants to die to escape it all, suggestion an emotionless wreck. However the music suggests that he's often happy and often angry and both of those are emotional states. If you can still feel, whatever it is that you feel, then you're still very much alive. This narrator isn't just alive, he's kicking.

The calmer sections often feel like alternative rock, melodic and only a little angsty, never close to emo, while the angrier ones shift unmistakably into deathcore and sometimes almost into death metal. Phil Bozeman's vocals mostly manifest as a rough and raspy shout but, when he speeds up his delivery, as on Lost Boy, they almost become a death growl. It's a little odd to hear two genres ostensibly so far away from each other connect so effectively as contrasts, but that's the joy of the sound Whitechapel nail here.

Just in case that isn't enough, there's not a lot else here. Pretty much everything moves between those couple of contrasts, but there are a few other moments. Anticure has a fantastic intro, which plays out like a grungy southern AC/DC, while the one a song earlier on A Bloodsoaked Symphony has the AC/DC mix with Tool instead. I liked these odd touches and wished there had been more of them. They do elevate those songs, which move into very different territory otherwise. Clearly I'm in need of more Whitechapel.

Compassionizer - An Ambassador in Bonds (2021)

Country: Russia
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Oct 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Prog Archives

I didn't find progressive rock until 1984, when Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show sprang it on me at the same time as every other form of rock and metal from Steely Dan to Venom, but I was never in any doubt that it was a gamechanger a decade earlier. I imagined people who had grown up knowing exactly what music was (whatever they grew up listening to) hearing it for the first time and being shocked into wondering what was happening. In the eighties, however, it was just prog rock, as we had come to terms with what it was, put boundaries around it and labelled it off.

I mention that because this second album from Compassionizer, a musical project built around the keyboardist Ivan Rozmainsky, feels like it has to be prog rock but maybe isn't, as it ignores just as many traditions as it adheres to. This doesn't sound like Yes or Genesis or King Crimson, if they're what spring to mind when you think of prog rock. Maybe there's some Canterbury here, especially on The Man That Sitteth Not in the Seat of the Scornful. Maybe there's some krautrock in here, on An Ambassador in Bonds (Part 3), with what sound like seagulls flying out of the synths. However, I'd suggest that it doesn't sound like whichever bands you think of in either of those genres either.

So what else could it be? It isn't jazz, either, even though the main instrument is often the clarinet of Andrey Stefinoff. Yeah, I said Compassionizer was built around a keyboard player and it is, with those keyboards primarily being synths and also frequently harpsichord, as at the very outset on the intro to Follow After Meekness, but this isn't remotely Vangelis or Jean-Michel Jarre. Maybe there's some Tomita here, not that you'd ever confuse the sounds, as the main reason it isn't jazz is that every piece feels carefully built and every moment is precisely what Rozmainsky wants it to be. He's not just playing with the air to see what happens when he does interesting things to it.

And that makes me wonder if the closest comparison ought to be to contemporary composers, not that this is classical music, even with so much harpsichord and clarinet, but it is very deliberate in its composition. Rozmainsky doesn't seem particularly interested in songs with hooks, far beyond this being entirely instrumental; he's much more interested in riffs and rhythms, as well as more esoteric things like contrasts and layers, making a lot of this play out to me like a folk prog take on Philip Glass albums like Glassworks. And there are responses. This album often feels as if it's really a conversation between instruments, especially on An Ambassador in Bonds (Part 1).

If musical experimentation for its own sake sounds like an emotionless endeavour, I should point out that this is very emotional music. Different Sides of Ascension, as the title suggests, plays in a lot of different tones that elicit very different emotions. It moves from cheerful celebration into darker, more thoughtful tones but reemerges somewhat into the light before it ends. I am Sitting on the Pier is wistful. Hard-Won Humility is questioning.

Surely the most striking piece here is the title track, which appears in three very different parts. The first is thoughtful and it shifts from gentle to volatile, with the most overt guitarwork on the album. The second is martial and processional, unfolding in bold brass. The third, later on, returns to pensive and adds playful to the mix, before it gets really interesting with the introduction of an array of layers, undulating like an ocean. I should add that everything here is interesting, so when it gets even more interesting, we ought to pay attention.

If there's a problem here, it's that all these pieces of music feel like they ought to run forever, but they end and usually sooner and less clearly than I wanted them to. It's immersive stuff and I just wasn't ready to climb out of any of it. At least, there's an earlier Compassionizer album for me to check out, 2020's Caress of Compassion, and a whole slew of albums by Rozmainsky's main band, a possibly similar chamber prog outfit called Roz Vitalis, who have released ten studio albums and nine live ones since their founding in 2001, including a 2007 album called Compassionizer. I guess it may be the key to this.

Friday 19 November 2021

Jerry Cantrell - Brighten (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I'm not the world's biggest fan of Alice in Chains, though I did appreciate their take on grunge, as it was a bit more diverse and bit heavier than most of their peers. I'm actually surprised to realise that they're still together and with hardly any line-up changes, given that two out of four original members are no longer with us. In fact, Alice in Chains have been more prolific in the 21st century than Jerry Cantrell has on his own, this being his third solo album, his second this millennium and his first in the nineteen years since 2002's Degradation Trip.

If I've heard that, it would have been around its release and I've completely forgotten it, so I have to say that I'm coming into this pretty much without expectations, any that I have shaped by early Alice in Chains. And, while there's definitely a gritty tone to proceedings, it manifests more as alt country than it does grunge. That more modern tone aside, this feels much older than grunge, as if it's a covers album of country rock and classic rock deep cuts from the seventies that I've never heard before.

In truth, there's only one cover here, the short closer, which is of Elton John's Goodbye, the final track on Madman Across the Water, which was released in 1971 when Cantrell was only five and I'd maybe figured out how to stand up on my own. It's delightfully stripped down and resonant.

Perhaps the country flavour is made more overt by Atone, the opener and opening single. It's the most grunge song here too, reminding me of Mary My Hope as well as Alice in Chains but with an impactful drum sound that carries a stomping feet vibe, as if this was playing at a revival in a tent. A more traditional country flavour shows up on Siren Song, again an alt country rock number built off power chords and a much more laid back vibe. There's alt country too on Prism of Doubt and a lot on Black Hearts and Evil Done, a song that I could hear covered by Son Volt or Uncle Tupelo.

While the cover is of an Elton John song, the most frequent vibe I got here was Tom Petty, mostly in the credits that Cantrell can claim for his own: the guitar work, the songwriting and in some of the vocal melodies, if not the tone. His favourite song is apparently the title track and whenever it doesn't sound like Tom Petty, it sounds like ELO, especially in the changes and the Jeff Lynne-like chorus of "You only reap what you sow." Lynne, of course, wrote, produced and performed on the Full Moon Fever album for Petty, which has only grown over the years.

There would have been a member of the Heartbreakers here, keyboardist Benmont Tench, but he had other commitments that prevented him playing on Siren Song. His inclusion would be far less surprising than some of the people who are here. On bass is Duff McKagan of Guns n' Roses, who don't spring to mind as an influence at all. There are two members of the Dillinger Escape Plan at points, Gil Sharone contributing about half the drums and Greg Puciato adding backing vocals, again far from their genre of choice.

It's the other major contributor who seems to fit most logically and that's Abe Laboriel Jr., who's been Paul McCartney's drummer for the past couple of decades. There are Beatles moments here but a lot fewer than there are ELO or Lynyrd Skynyrd moments and far fewer than there are Tom Petty moments. By the time we get to Had to Know, it's impossible not to see Petty's hand all over this album, even if he had absolutely nothing to do with it. I wonder what Cantrell has been listening to most lately.

And so this was a bit of a surprise for me. It's recognisably Cantrell but it's Cantrell channelling a seventies vibe that I didn't expect, trawling in alt country, southern rock and classic pop/rock, over which he layers his grunge heritage as much as attitude as tone. And I like it, more than I expected to, which is always a good surprise for an album to bring me.

Evil Hunter - Lockdown (2021)

Country: Spain
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Oct 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Here's another submission, this time of a band from Spain who are an odd mix of smooth and very much not smooth. The former is in the music, because they play a traditional form of heavy/power metal that's right out of the eighties and it's slick, tight and capably produced. The latter is in the lead vocals of Damián Chicano who has a powerful and abrasive voice that's probably bigger than he is and knows it. I initially thought Lizzy Borden and Marc Storace of Krokus, but the longer this ran, the more I realised it was Axl Rose trying to emulate Udo Dirkschneider. How I missed that on the opening of the opener, Guardian Angel, first time through, I have no idea.

There's certainly a lot of Accept here and not a heck of a lot of Guns n' Roses otherwise. Perhaps I could call out Get Up as the most obvious homage to the Accept style of riffing, but they're a clear influence from the beginning all the way to the end. In fact, I spent a long while trying to identify why the chorus of the closer, Blown with the Wind, sounded so familiar, until I realised that it was Winter Dreams, the closer to Accept's classic album Balls to the Wall.

The other obvious influence is Iron Maiden, though that's mostly in the guitarwork. This is a twin guitar band and José Rubio and Víctor Durán are clearly fans of the Murray/Smith approach. It's a given late in You'll Never Walk Alone but it shows up often. In fact, the other recognisable section, the intro to Burning in Flames, isn't light years away from the intro to Transylvania. Of course, as I point out that there are only two recognisable sections, I keep thinking others are familiar too, so I should highlight that none of these songs are ripoffs. Evil Hunter's sound is just distilled from so much eighties metal that it can't help but sound familiar.

There are other influences that I caught. There's a riff halfway through Burning in Flames that's right out of Tank. Some of the Maiden-esque guitarwork shifts a little forward to sound more like the many bands in European power metal who owe Maiden a debt. And, just to throw us, there's a Celtic bit on Blown with the Wind that does much the same job as those classical sections in many eighties Accept songs like Metal Heart and Bound to Fail.

I liked this from the outset, though Chicano's voice did take a little while to get used to, but it also grew on me a lot. I found myself taking fewer notes than I needed as I just sat back and enjoyed the damn thing, only realising it was done when that chorus from Blown with the Wind showed up again. I can't count how many times I listened through this album with the goal of taking more notes and failing miserably because I got caught up in enjoying it once again.

My favourite song is a gimme, for a change. It's Fear Them All, which kicks off the second side and it wins out because it does absolutely everything that Evil Hunter do well and in abundance: it has what may be the best riff, the best transition and surely the best hook. This is the song you'll find yourself singing along with even on a first listen. Sure, I can't swear that this one doesn't seem a little familiar too but I can't place anything.

And, perhaps most crucially, Chicano's voice is about as restrained on this one as it gets. I do like when he lets loose, because he has some serious power; he provides an excellent extended scream on You'll Never Walk Alone and promptly outdoes that at the end of Get Up. However, he's really fond of dancing on the border of control and just out of control for effect and that's the bit that's going to turn some people off. He gets a little raucous late in Fear Them All, but it builds well and that works.

At the end of the day, there isn't a lot that's original here, but Evil Hunter nail this eighties sound and take me back to the glory days of Accept and Tokyo Blade and Lizzy Borden. It's energetic and up tempo and accessible, but with a dangerous edge to it, courtesy of Chicano's vocals. Frankly, if you grew up listening to eighties metal in the UK, this will be right up your alley. And there isn't a duff track anywhere to be found. If you like one of these tracks, you're going to like all of them. If it featured more originality, like the Celtic sections on Blown with the Wind, this would be an 8/10.

Thursday 18 November 2021

Mastodon - Hushed and Grim (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Oct 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

The new Mastodon, their eighth studio album, was recommended to me by a friend, but it's a hard one to review for a few reasons. One is that it's really long at almost an hour and a half, so it's not easy to step back from it far enough to see the big picture. Like Godzilla, it's just too big to fit into the frame and we only see parts of it at any time. However, none of its fifteen (count 'em) tracks is able to stand out from the crowd to say something small enough for us to grasp and, with twisted irony, that means that each song really serves as the album in miniature.

Just in case that sounds negative (and I guess it is, at least in part), I should underline that I had a good time with this album. There's no doubt that this is accomplished stuff, obviously an intricate work but always an accessible one, and I found myself in the moment at every moment. Even at its crazy extended length, I never found myself bored, the closest I came being the occasional wonder at how it was still playing, given that I started it what felt like a few hours ago. However, all those hours were good ones and I was always engaged with whatever riff was playing, whatever change was being wrought, whatever hook was being exploited.

The catch is that, once it's all said and done, I couldn't even hazard a guess at a favourite track, or a favourite hook or a favourite riff or a favourite anything. Everything blurs together into a really long musical journey that I thoroughly enjoyed without being able to tell you much at all about it. I was there and now I'm here and whatever happened in between was great but it's obscured into a jumble of senses and you kind of have to take that journey yourself.

In fact, that feeling dominates so much that the closest comparison I can give isn't a musical one at all but a train ride. I got exactly the same effect from watching a ten hour Norwegian train ride that took me from somewhere (Trondheim, I think) a long way north into the Arctic Circle. I loved that journey and it spoke to the soul but I can't really you tell anything else about it. There was a lot of snow. Everything was beautiful but moments were more so. It was an experience. That's it. And the same applies here, sans the snow.

And, at this point, I fully realise that I'm on my fifth paragraph and I haven't said anything about the actual music here. I can do that, at least. This is prog rock that's often heavy enough to count as prog metal, continuing Mastodon's development from a sludge metal band, albeit a massively influential one, into something far less limited, more diverse and emphatically more interesting. Much of this sounds modern only because the guitars are frequently heavy, the bass likewise and the drums very active. Yes never did this, we think, and then we realise that Gobblers of Dregs is kind of like a Yes song that Yes merely didn't write or record. Except when it's like Tool.

The more frequent comparisons would be to people like Dream Theater, Opeth and, at odd crucial points, Voivod, none of which should be surprising. I'd say that Pushing the Tides is the most overt song to push that Voivod influence to the foreground, but I'm sure that there are a whole bunch of other nineties influences in there too that I don't know as well. The other song with an element that stands out, even if the song doesn't, is Dagger, because there's instrumentation on that one that goes beyond the usual and the brass or strings that show up occasionally. I had to look this up and found that it's a sarangi, an Indian stringed instrument played with a bow.

And so I find myself in the odd situation of wanting to recommend an album, which is clearly good stuff, without being able to really explain why. There are no singles here, though I did try to listen to songs in isolation and they sound good, albeit with a loneliness that comes from the separation from the other hour plus of music on this album. It really does work best as one long slab of prog rock/metal but don't just set aside an hour and a half because you can't just listen to this once. It grows with repeat listens as we sink into the music. You need a day, at least, and realistically that still won't be enough. I need to listen to this a lot more yet.

Santonegro - Roots (2021)

Country: Spain
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Sep 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's yet another interesting album from Spain and, beyond its obvious Black Sabbath influence, which is pretty much a given for anything touching stoner rock, everything else here seems to be inspired by the nineties to me, even though their previous album, Flesh & Bones, states that they play "Stoner Rock con influencias de los 80's". And it is clearly stoner rock instead of stoner metal, even though it's often heavy stuff. 7 Animal is a lean and mean three minute number that grinds with attitude and anger and almost a Swans vibe.

Mostly, the band feel like they're a big cat preparing to pounce. They have a dangerous sound and a versatile one too, one that draws its influences from grunge and punk as much as it does metal, even alt country and southern rock on Those Memories, which is hard not to call southern grunge. It's an enticing combination.

Much of that comes from the vocals of Javier Marco, which surprised me when they showed up in Them, the first track proper. I don't have enough depth in nineties American alternative rock to properly call out all his influences, but I'm hearing an agreeably weird mix of Chris Cornell, Glenn Danzig and Eddie Vedder. As you might imagine from that, he sings in a clean voice but it varies a lot depending on the song and its need for impact. He never gets harsh but there's a hoarseness to his voice that gets emphatic when he shifts to more of a shout.

As much as I like Marco's voice and, as surprising as it was for me, I like his voice over this music, I really love that music. A lot of it's in the guitar of Juan José Jover, whether he's building a riff or leaping into psychedelia for another memorable solo. A lot of it's in the very active back end, as I have to point out that Leandro Del Río's bass isn't remotely content with providing a bedrock for the band to build on; he's a lead participant from moment one, as prominent on Into the Valley as Jover's guitar, both of them enforcing their presence as the album begins. At least I assume that the bass there is Del Río's, as there's a guest bassist on that one too, Alberto Puga, who I believe is a former member of the band. Whoever's responsible for it, it sounds great.

I should add that Into the Valley is one of two instrumentals here, both of which are magnificent and annoying only in their shortness. It's a glorious intro to the album but it's over a minute and a half later. I wanted it to evolve and grow, whether it stayed instrumental or acquired a vocal track. I'd echo that on Whispers too, the other instrumental, which is all about power and dominance in a Danzig fashion. I could see this one featuring in a horror movie and again, I wanted it to last far longer than the two minutes it has.

And I wanted the album to last far longer than it does too. There are only eight tracks here, which include those two short instrumentals, with a combined running time that's a whisker under half an hour. That might work for Slayer, because half an hour of Reign in Blood leaves us bludgeoned and reeling. Half an hour of this, however, feels more like a really good start and I wanted two or three more tracks to really leave me satisfied. As I replayed again, I realised that I was thinking of the album like a good meal without the dessert. I wasn't full yet.

I think it's fair to say that the band set themselves up for that one criticism. They do a lot here in that half an hour, carving a very Santonegro sound out of a wild set of influences, not just in their choice of genres to mix in but in their tones. 7 Animal is angry and aggressive. Go Away is bouncy and commercial but still edgy. I Feel Like a Scarecrow floats effortlessly, even though it's as heavy as pretty much anything here except 7 Animal. All of that deserves praise, but I can't help but feel that there are more strings to Santonegro's bow that they just aren't showing us yet.

But hey, it's a show business maxim to leave the punters wanting more. I want more.

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Roger Taylor - Outsider (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Oct 2021
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This may not be the most minimalist cover on any album I've reviewed at Apocalypse Later, but I'd be surprised if it isn't the most pink. I guess that makes it an Outsider and the logical response to that is, "Welcome to the club!" Now, we don't tend to think of Roger Taylor as an outsider, given a highly acknowledged career in music that dates back to three years before I was born (and I'm on my second half century). Most obviously, of course, he was the drummer in Queen from before it was even founded, given that it grew out of Smile, in which he spent a few years alongside Brian May before Freddie Mercury joined and renamed it Queen.

Now, Queen were always an eclectic band—arguably the most successful eclectic band of all time, though they might have to hand that crown to the Beatles—and this album follows suit, because it veers through a patchwork of different genres and styles. That can be a good thing, as it was on a variety of Queen albums, especially Sheer Heart Attack, but it isn't always and it's electic here in many ways because it's half reworkings of older material and half newer songs to add to them.

That's an odd approach but then Taylor isn't really known for his solo albums. This is only his sixth such in over half a century of making music, following Fun on Earth eight years ago, and my guess is that he felt the urge to do something during lockdown. There's a song here called Isolation that is easy to read as his feelings over the past year. It's actually one of the highlights of the album, a notch or two above quite a lot of it.

I believe it opens with new stuff. Tides is new wave pop/rock with an edge of prog. It's enticing and easy to listen to, Taylor's voice as soft as ever. I Know, I Know, I Know mixes teasing xylophone with poppy fingersnaps, but settles into a similarly patient pop/rock vibe. There's a lot of David Bowie here, as there is on Absoutely Anything, but with a side of Pink Floyd too. In between those latter two tracks, though, is More Kicks (Long Day's Journey into Night... Life), which is a rocker, starting out with some rocking drums and, well, rocking throughout. It's not a great rocker, really, but it's a rocker and it feels as at home here, given his talents, as it does out of place with what's around it.

Then we get some older songs. Absolutely Anything is a reworked version of a song he wrote for a film of the same name in 2015. Gangsters are Running This World is a single he put out a couple of years ago, oddly included here in two versions, one heavier than the other (and very cool indeed). These all feature right in the meat of the album, while two others wait for the end: Foreign Sand, a new version of a song he released as a single in 1994, and Journey's End, a single in 2017. I have to own up here because they're all new to me. I don't think I've heard any solo Taylor since Fun in Space way back in the early '80s, though I do remember his other band, the Cross, a little later on.

As you might imagine, this doesn't feel particularly coherent as an album, but the songs are good for the most part and it occasionally sparks into great. For me, that's around the middle, with the two takes on Gangsters bookending the only track with a guest, We're All Just Trying to Get By, an interesting singer/songwriter sort of number with KT Tunstall lending her talents to proceedings. I like Isolation after them too, which has moments of experimentation in a song that feels smooth in that Bowie-esque style. And then there's a spirited cover of The Clapping Song, a million seller for Shirley Ellis in 1965. How it even thinks about fitting here I have no idea, but it's a highlight. I'd be lying if I didn't say I drifted away somewhat after that.

So this is a mixed bag. Fans of solo Taylor will enjoy, as may some fans of Queen but it feels like it's a solo album by a musician not known for his solo music. There's good stuff here but it doesn't gel together particularly well, even if there's a vague arc of aggression that waxes and wanes as the album moves on. The opener and closer, Tides and Journey's End, are stylistic mirrors that have us coming in calm and leaving that way, with the more interesting, less thoughtful songs in between.

Nidhoeggr - Arise (2021)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Oct 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I'm not entirely convinced by Nidhoeggr's approach to folk metal, because the music is as lively as you expect from the genre, if downtuned a little, but the vocals are primarily harsh, which makes for an odd contrast. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and I did find a charm in songs like Twilight Zone moving between folk/death and lively jigs. I'd definitely be down the front at one of their gigs, policing the pit, and getting into the spirit of the gig, especially during the folkier bits, but I also wish that there were more of them, even I got used to the approach and came to appreciate it.

Certainly, it's those folkier bits that grabbed me here and they start early in The Journey, which is the first song proper. The vocal sections are lively, I guess, but they're a lot less lively than any of the instrumental sections in between. Then the band really kick their feet up and we heed the call to dance, even if we can't. And, if that holds through the parts using only traditional instruments, it holds double when they bring in what sound like accordions but may well be the work of synths.

I always look for exotic instrumentation on folk metal albums and I'm not sure there is any here in truth, but it sometimes sounds like there is. Onwards kicks off with harpsichord, even if it's really synths, then adds an odd bouncy sound to the background that reminds of dance music. It's quite a neat addition actually, even though I've probably just made it sound like it shouldn't be. I like it in this song and on Winters Wight later on. I also like the various other neat additions that show up across the album, but more about that later.

The other thing I liked here a lot was the occasion venture across genre boundaries. Maybe I'd see the harpsichord as a nod towards goth (as with the violin on Winters Wight), but Onwards isn't a gothic metal song. However, Scorched Earth kicks in very much like a psychobilly song and I could totally picture a bearded metalhead's fingers running up and down the strings on his double bass, even if that wasn't happening in truth and the instrumentation was traditional. It sounds unusual but cool and I dig this song a lot.

The most frequent border that Nidhoeggr cross is the one from folk metal into Viking metal. Rise and Fall isn't the first shift across that border—it's there from the outset in The Journey—but it's surely the most overt. And I think this works very well indeed, because of Janos Thomann's harsh vocals. They may not be my preference for a folk metal album but they work really well on a Viking metal album and, when the two genres merge on songs like Twilight Zone, it all sounds great. The Viking/death angle does threaten to overwhelm the folk but the folk battles back valiantly and it ends up being perhaps my favourite song here.

And that also means that my favourite three songs are all next to each other on this album, three very different songs in slots four, five and six. It's a decent album before them and it stays decent after that with those neat additions to each song I mentioned earlier to elevate it, from the organ intro to Mighty Willow to the basswork of Thibault Schmidt early in Desolation, never forgetting little piano touches from Lorenz Joss that often go by unnoticed on a first listen but leap out to be noticed on further runs through. However, none of these other songs quite challenges those three as the first half becomes the second. At least not yet. I'm liking this more with each listen so I may not be done with it yet.

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Count Raven - The Sixth Storm (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Oct 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Count Raven from their debut album in 1990, which was yet another decent entry into the growing catalogue of Swedish doom classics. I don't remember anything after that, but I seem to have missed three further albums in the nineties as I was drifting away from music, all with Dan Fondelius adding lead vocals to his guitar duties after Christian Linderson left to join Saint Vitus. I see that they split up in 1998 but got back together again in 2003, but they haven't been too active in the studio, this being only their second album in those eighteen years, a dozen on from the last one, Mammons War in 2009.

I don't know what they got up to on those four middle albums, but this feels old school to me, very much in the traditional vein with Ozzy-era Sabbath obvious throughout. It's downtuned but not so much as to feel extreme. It's heavy, of course, built off predominantly slow riffs that get lively on occasion. The opener, Blood Pope, gambols along like a baby mammoth, heavy but also bouncy to the point of being playful, and there's a great escalation halfway through Oden that does that in much the same way. And the vocals, still from Fondelius as they've been since 1992, are clean.

And these songs are long. Blood Pope starts the album out just shy of nine minutes. The Nephilims breaks ten and Oden almost reaches twelve. Only one of these nine songs lasts under five and it's an anomalous song that's oddly like a Phil Collins solo single with a surprisingly heavy atmosphere of keyboards layered over it. I kept waiting for the moment when the drums would kick in just like In the Air Tonight. It works here as an interlude, especially given that the three tracks ahead of it total almost half an hour, which would make an album all on their own for some bands.

I like Blood Pope, but my favourite early piece is easily The Nephilims. The riff gets under the skin and the vocals are interesting, almost a chant at some points and a narration at others. It's easily the most varied and quirky song on the album and I'd call it out as my favourite period, if not for a few later songs that resonate in other ways. Baltic Storm has a memorable chorus. Oden is a great epic that ends in a great singalong.

And then there's The Ending, which is traditional except for a whistling keyboard line that adds an interesting melody over the riffs. If it isn't my favourite song here, it's certainly my pick for those in search of a gorgeous riff-driven stomper. For those looking for heaviness, then it's The Giver and the Taker that I'd queue up, again mostly because of its riffs. Everything here is rooted in Ozzy era Sabbath but this one's the closest to that template, on all fronts, especially the vocals.

So, while there's variety here, the biggest problem the album has is that it's very long, at over 73 minutes, and there just isn't enough variety to sustain that sort of length for anyone who isn't an inveterate doom hound. Sure, Heaven's Door is something different and Goodbye wraps things up with something different again, being a ballad. It could easily be called Count Raven's Changes as it really is as different from the norm as the song of that name was for Sabbath. And, like that old ballad, it's occasionally clumsy lyrically but it's clearly heartfelt and it's impossible not to feel the grief that was poured into the song.

I'd call this a solid and welcome return for Count Raven, after a dozen years away from the studio. It's good to see them back.